Gerry Thornley: Schmidt liable to stick rather than twist against England
Peter O’Mahony is pushing hard but Ireland coach will likely resist urge to make changes
Ireland players at the Principality Stadium last Friday. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Niggling injuries to some of Ireland’s outside backs, notably Keith Earls, who didn’t train earlier this week due to a tight groin, has seemingly delayed the naming of the Ireland team for Saturday’s Six Nations finale until after training on Thursday morning.
Joe Schmidt has been keeping the players on their toes this week by rotating them in an out of training drills. However, the expectation is that if everyone is passed fit, Schmidt will announce an unchanged starting XV to play England, with Jared Payne returning to the match-day squad in place of his Ulster team-mate Tommy Bowe, who has been ruled out due to the fractured ankle he sustained within a minute of appearing off the bench against Wales last Friday night.
Schmidt and co would assuredly have been eager to bring Payne back into the mix anyway, after consecutive starts for Ulster following his recuperation from the lacerated kidney he suffered against Australia last November.
That Payne was picked at outside centre and then fullback in those two games suggests the Irish management were considering him for both roles, or perhaps more feasibly as cover for both positions off the bench.
Speaking on Tuesday, scrum coach Greg Feek intimated that not a huge amount had changed in a week, and even hinted that they do not consider Payne fully fit yet after his four-month lay-off.
“Again, it’s similar to last week. You’ve got to look at where he’d slot in and who performed well and how we’re trucking. He’s a great guy to have even just in camp and on the field. He can be quite cheeky at times, but he’s good and we’ll just wait and see. There’s a few guys who have bumps and bruises so we’ll just wait. He’s always an option and if he was fully fit it would be even more of a headache.”
Feek also appeared fairly certain that Earls, whose footwork and carrying in traffic off relatively static ball in the Principality Stadium was fairly impressive, would return to training on Thursday. “He’ll be training on Thursday, we’re just giving him an extra bit of time. It’s just a slight groin tightness.”
With Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton having reportedly trained fully on Tuesday, aside from factoring Payne into their thinking, the other likeliest consideration for change would be in accommodating Peter O’Mahony into a re-jigged backrow.
O’Mahony’s leadership qualities are well known and his inclusion would also strengthen Ireland’s lineout, both on their own throw and the opposition’s – witness how his competitiveness in the air forced the late scrum with which Ireland had one last throw of the dice in Cardiff.
Again though, management may be tempted to stick rather than twist with the CJ Stander-Jamie Heaslip-Seán O’Brien combination which has started all four Championship games to date. O’Brien would be the most vulnerable on last Friday’s showing, but he’s the most natural fit of the quartet at openside, and it seems unthinkable that Heaslip would be jettisoned.
There will be the usual debate regarding the merits of starting Jack McGrath or Cian Healy, with Iain Henderson again pushing for a place in the secondrow, but it was a commentary on Donnacha Ryan’s fine all-round performance in Cardiff that he, rather than Devin Toner, stayed on the pitch for 80 minutes. All of this also presupposes there are no other injuries we are unaware of.
For their part, it would be entirely understandable if England remain unchanged after scaling the heights they did in last Saturday’s 61-21 win over Scotland, although Billy Vunipola is pushing hard for a return to the starting line-up.
IRELAND (possible): R Kearney; K Earls, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, S Zebo; J Sexton, C Murray; J McGrath, R Best (capt), T Furlong; D Ryan, D Toner; CJ Stander, S O’Brien, J Heaslip.
Replacements: N Scannell, C Healy, J Ryan, I Henderson, P O’Mahony, K Marmion, P Jackson, J Payne.
ENGLAND (possible): M Brown; J Nowell, J Joseph, O Farrell, E Daly; G Ford, B Youngs; J Marler, D Hartley, D Cole; J Launchbury, C Lawes; M Itoje, J Haskell, N Hughes.
Replacements: J George, M Vunipola, K Sinckler, T Wood, B Vunipola, D Care, B Te’o, A Watson.